Arms to YPG, new charms for Turkey

Arms to YPG, new charms for Turkey

It looks like all the odds are currently against Turkey in the Kurdish question. U.S. President Donald Trump just approved plans to directly arm the outlawed PKK-affiliated Kurdish fighters in Syria, YPG (the People’s Protection Units), despite Ankara’s long-lasting opposition. The fact that this was announced on the eve of the upcoming Erdoğan-Trump meeting on May 16 makes the situation much more alarming for Turkey. 

What’s more, Russia is also strengthening its military presence in the YPG-held area in northwest Syria, shielding the Kurdish fighters by flying the Russian national flag in the region. Although Moscow is doing this mainly due to its rivalry with the U.S. over expanding sphere of influence in northern Syria, the move mainly hurts Turkey’s interests.

This issue has long been a pain in Turkey’s neck. As the fight against the PKK goes on domestically, the terrorist group is also expanding its sphere of influence in Iraq, despite Ankara’s friendly relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the northern part of Iraq. 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on the other hand, seems to want to use the YPG/PYD entity in northern Syria against Turkey, just as his father Hafez al-Assad used the PKK in the 1980s and 90s. The worst part is the reflection of this regional picture on Turkey. PKK intensifies its terror getting support from its affiliates in Syria. 

To cut the long story short, the YPG/PYD entity in Syria, which is an existential issue for Ankara, is apparently going to remain a medium to long-term problem for Turkey. This is why Ankara has to try something new. It needs to come up with a solution to reverse this equation and take the “Kurdish card” out of the hands of regional and global powers. It needs to look beyond the current situation and shift from a short-term vision to a long-term vision.

Just a couple of years ago, PYD leader Saleh Muslim was welcomed in Ankara, since back then the PYD was solely a political actor. Its military arm, the YPG, was a different contact point. However, the more active the YPG became in Syria and the more it became appreciated by the West, the more the PYD was kept in the background. The wisest move for Turkey now would be to try again to separate the PYD from the YPG; in other words, it should push the PYD to once again become a political party.

Ankara is not short of voices who express this vision. The New York Times quoted on Feb. 14 one of Erdoğan’s senior advisers, İlnur Cevik, as questioning whether the PYD can become “another Barzani,” the leader of the Kurdish region in Iraq who has excellent ties with Turkey. Çevik was essentially saying that just as Barzani had placed distance between himself and the PKK, the Syrian Kurds could follow the same path.

However, the domestic context also needs to be attuned to such a process. Erdoğan had pursued a peace process with the PKK, with varying levels of success, from 2009 until June 2015. Peace talks could again be initiated, though with different parameters, which would certainly strengthen the bid to separate the PYD and the YPG. The disarmament of the PKK inside Turkey would weaken the PKK-YPG entity in Iraq and Syria as well. Also don’t forget that the end of the war in Syria will essentially leave the YPG non-functional when it will be much easier to cleanse this area from violence. 

In short, if the PKK abandons arms and Turkey develops relations with a civil and political PYD, a “friendly” Kurdish corridor could be formed along Turkey’s borders.

To take this one step further, I spoke to Tarık Çelenk, the founder and head of Istanbul-based think tank Ekopolitik. Çelenk suggests a “post-national” model for Turkey, meaning essentially Turkey’s economic, cultural and security-oriented integration with northern Syria. According to him, Ankara should develop trade cooperation with the region just as it has done with Iraqi Kurdistan. “Turkish banks should be built and Turkish bases should operate in the region instead of American and Russian ones,” he said. 

Çelenk emphasizes that this is the only way this area could be under Turkey’s influence, rather than under the influence of other foreign powers.